SEOUL, South Korea – Disgraced researcher Hwang Woo-suk asked forgiveness Thursday from fellow South Koreans for his fraudulent claims of human stem cell breakthroughs, but blamed the scandal on junior researchers who he said deceived him.
Hwang, in his first public appearance in nearly three weeks, continued to insist he has the technology to use cloning to create human embryonic stem cells genetically matched to patients — saying he could do so in six months if he had access to enough human eggs.
Seoul National University, where Hwang is a professor, issued investigation results Tuesday saying he fabricated landmark claims in 2004 to have created the world's first stem cells from a cloned human embryo.
The university previously ruled that another Hwang article last year on patient-specific stem cells also was fake.
"The use of fake data ... is what I have to take full responsibility for as first author," Hwang told a nationally televised news conference. "I acknowledge all of that and apologize once again."
"I ask for your forgiveness," Hwang said. "I feel so miserable that it's difficult even to say sorry."
Hwang, at one point on the verge of tears, also blamed himself for being too caught up in his research to not see the problems around him.
"We were crazy, crazy about work," he said. "I was blinded. All I could see was whether I could make Korea stand in the center of the world through this research."
Hwang repeated his earlier claims that he was deceived about the data by two junior scientists at a partner research hospital, and said he believed that his papers were legitimate when they were published.
He said the junior researchers at Seoul-based Mizmedi Hospital lied to him when they said they successfully culled and grew stem cells from human embryos cloned by Hwang's team.
"We believe they completely deceived [us] with their research results," Hwang said. "Relying on the role and responsibility of Mizmedi Hospital, we trusted their reports 100 percent."
Hwang previously called on prosecutors to investigate his claims that some of the cloned embryonic stem cells at his lab had been maliciously switched with those created at Mizmedi using embryos that had not been cloned.
However, prosecutors raided Hwang's home in southern Seoul on Thursday, seizing evidence related to their investigation into his stem cell fraud, prosecution official Kim Hang-soo said. The government has said it would launch an audit of national funds provided for Hwang's research.
During the press conference, Hwang claimed that his team would be able to clone human stem cells if given the right conditions.
"I think we can create patient-specific stem cells in six months if eggs are sufficiently provided," he said.
Scientists hope one day to use such technology to treat afflictions including Alzheimer's disease and diabetes by allowing patients to grow replacement tissue using their own stem cells.
Hwang said his team had succeeded in extracting stem cells from genetically modified pigs using his cloning technology. He also claimed his team has submitted a paper on the successful cloning of a "special animal," which he did not identify.
South Korea's Yonhap news agency, citing sources it didn't identify, reported that the animal Hwang referred to may be a wolf.
Seoul National University on Tuesday upheld Hwang's claim to have created the world's first cloned dog. The journal Nature, which published Hwang's cloned-dog article, said Tuesday that preliminary results from its independent tests also showed the dog was a clone.
Hwang also admitted Thursday that he gave prior consent to a female subordinate to donate her own eggs for his research and collected letters from other researchers, pledging to donate eggs — an act widely considered unethical as it could involve possible coercion.
After almost a year of denial, Hwang acknowledged in November that he used eggs from two junior researchers in his work, but said he wasn't aware of it until later. He also admitted that some of the eggs used for research were bought, unlike his previous claims they were donated.
Wearing a suit and tie, Hwang — once dubbed the "Pride of Korea" — was surrounded by about two dozen current and former students. Some broke into tears during Hwang's speech.
A dozen of Hwang's staunch supporters rallied outside the press conference venue in central Seoul, holding a banner saying "Professor Hwang, cheer up. We still stand behind you."
"I don't care if the papers were faked or not," said Jeong Ha-gyun, who attended Hwang's news conference in a wheelchair. Jeong, head of the Korea Spinal Cord Injury Association, was paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident 21 years ago.
"I think we should give him a chance to prove he has the technology," the 50-year-old said. "When it's proved he can't do it, it's not too late to throw stones at him."